The Future of the Past

Part of the Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries exhibition.

Not long ago, all we knew of the great dinosaurs was the shape of their bones and the sound of their names—the rest of our "knowledge" was largely guesswork. Today, scientists probe the way these creatures moved and ate, lived and died. And in decades to come, researchers aim to understand dinosaurs nearly as well as they understand some animals living on Earth today.

Science fiction? Not at all. Paleontologists, now deeply trained in biology and other fields, are tackling biological questions—"How long was a dinosaur's life? How do we tell males from females? How and why did they grow so large?" Eventually, fossils will reveal not just who an animal was, but how it lived. "It's a great time to be a dinosaur paleontologist," says American Museum of Natural History curator Mark Norell. "There's unexplored territory out there!"

New Technology

In the past, locating rich fossil deposits was a matter of legwork and luck. Paleontology still takes plenty of both, but using high-resolution images from satellites on laptop computers in the field allows scientists to zero in on promising fossil beds.

New Idea

Experts can tell a lot about the way a dinosaur bone looks from the outside. But as they have realized how much the microstructure of fossil bone can reveal about dinosaur life histories and evolution, more and more paleontologists are using high-speed saws in their laboratories.

The Inside Story

A cross-section of juvenile pachycephalosaur skull displays striations absent in adult specimens. Age can be determined from the interior of dinosaur bones by counting the annual growth lines, just as is done with tree rings.

New Discovery

The Gobi desert, first explored for fossils by American Museum of Natural History scientists early in the last century, continues to yield new treasures. Among them are these fragile bones of protoceratopsian embryos, hatchlings and juveniles preserved in extraordinary detail.